This is a paper that I wrote for my Acts class a few semesters ago. The reasons that I will post some of my own work for classes are two fold: 1. My writing needs to be critique and challenged. I will never become a better writer, arguer, and thinker if people don’t question my reasoning and point out my errors in writing. So please, if you read these let me know where you disagree with me with precision, not just a general “I don’t like.” Let me know what you don’t like and why you don’t like it. This would be a help to me to interact with you and hopefully sharpen both of our thinking. 2. Because what things I do study need to be passed on to aid others. Not that I have a lot of deep, spiritual things to say. But I want to aid in pointing people to Christ in any way I can. So enjoy!
THE INVASION OF THE GOSPEL AMONGST THE PAGAN INTELLECTUALS:
The church had received the command by Jesus, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8b). And in Acts 17:16-34 we see this commission working out it two categories. First, Paul confronts the paganism that flourished in Athens. The reality of Christ was pitted against the falsehood of pagan idolatry. The second category is that we see the gospel brought before the intellectuals. The gospel is not timid to critical thinking. It can stand up to the toughest intellectual scrutiny. But as the end of this passages demonstrates, no matter how realistic the gospel message is, mankind’s rebellion rejects the glories of the cross as foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18). But I believe that there is an overall sphere that encapsulates these two categories. The main thrust that drives these two things is a desire for God’s glory shown through the redemption of people. And it is people that come from different cultural backgrounds and have different presuppositions about reality. God glorious truth confronts their beliefs, shows the futility of those beliefs, and presents Christ as all in all. Therefore, in proclaiming the gospel we must know who we are proclaiming the gospel to and present God’s one gospel in diverse ways to reach who we are speaking it to.
To get the fullest sense of the meaning of this text I am going to look at some of the key historic places (Athens and the Areopagus), the philosophies that were present at Paul’s message (Epicureanism and Stoicism), and the context of this passage.
Athens was once a very important and wealthy city under the reign of Pericles in the 5th century B. C. It was once the city of such prominent philosophers as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Zeno. By the time of Paul, however, that glory had faded. Yet, the city still rode on its former glory. Thus it was still a place where philosophical inquiry was pursued.
The Areopagus was “the chief judicial body of the city” of Athens. It had the over arching power to decide cases on issues of city life, education, philosophical lectures, public morality, and foreign cults. But one function of the Areopagus that corresponds to this discussion is brought out by Bruce Winter. In regards to new religions,
One of the long-established tasks of the Council of the Areopagites was to examine the proofs that a herald might offer in support of his claim that a new deity existed. That role continued into the Roman period. If the Council were so persuaded, then the god or goddess would be admitted to the Parthenon. A dedicated temple would be built to the divinity, an annual feast day endowed and included in the Athenians’ religious calendar…the approval or disapproval of a new god in Athens set the precedent for other Greek cities.
So the Areopagus was a center of great importance for the city of Athens.
Epicureanism was founded by Epicurus who settled and opened up a school in Athens in 306 B.C. Epicurus believed that everything came into existence when atoms traveling in infinite void collided with one another. Thus, “Epicurus’s doctrine was completely materialist.” The gods, also, came into existence by the atoms and lived in “perfect blessedness, undisturbed by concern for mankind or worldly affairs.”
Their theory of purpose for life was one of pleasure, “Epicurus held that pleasure was the chief goal of life, with the pleasure most worth enjoying being a life of tranquility free from pain, disturbing passion, superstitious fears and anxiety about death.” So Epicurus’ view does not mean that it is a rush into immediate sensuous pleasure. It was a search for “true peace of mind.”
The history of the Stoics started with a man named Zeno. He held his philosophical gathers in the Stoa Poikile in the Athenian Market place. And it was from there they received their name Stoics.
The Stoics were of a completely different nature than the Epicureans. Blending ideas from Socrates, Heracleitus, and himself he came to view everything as living in harmony. They “argued for the unity of humanity and the kinship with the divine.” His view of God was pantheistic and this god was part of everything and fated the lives of every man. They had a high view of morality as one should act according to the divine nature that he is a part of.
This passage is during the second missionary journey of Paul. Paul decided that He wanted to visit the churches that they had planted (15:36). Yet, because of a disagreement Paul went with Silas instead of Barnabas (15:39). Together Paul and Silas “went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.” (15:41). In Lystra they meet a young man named Timothy and included him in their missionary travels (16:1-3). While traveling the Spirit directed them to Troas where Paul received a vision to go to Macedonia where Lydia, a Jailer and his family are converted (16:11-39). From there they went to Thessalonica (17:1-9) and then to Berea (17:10-15). In both cases they were driven from the cities by jealous Jews (17:5-10, 13-14). Thus members of the church sent Paul away (17:14) and those conducted him took him to Athens where he waited for Silas and Timothy (17:15).
Here in Acts we see God using the evil purposes of men to accomplish His good purposes. Where evil is trying to stop the influence of God’s gospel it only makes it increase more. Now Paul stands among the intellectuals with a message that defies human reasoning. And we can witness the apostle glorifying God by bring this good news to these intellectuals.
This section is divided in three sections. In verse 16-21 we see the interaction of Paul with the people of Athens. And then in verses 22-31 see hear the speech Paul made in the Areopagus. And the final verses, 32-34, summarize the response of the speech.
Paul’s Interaction with the Athenians. Vs 16-21.
While waiting in the city for Timothy and Silas Paul saw that Athens was full of idols. Paul did not view these idols “dispassionately, remarking on the beautiful artistry.” Instead Paul’s spirit provoked! He started preaching the gospel in both the synagogue and the market place called the agora. This was in pattern of how Socrates shared his ideas. This shows that “when Paul evangelized this city of Socrates, he used the method of Socrates.” Paul witnessed to these different people in their own cultural practices of communication. And because of this gospel being preached in the market two different groups of philosophical thought became attentive to Paul’s preaching. The Epicurean and Stoic philosophers begun conversing with Paul concerning the message he was preaching. Some completely discounted what he was saying and derided him as one who picked-up and used other people’s idea even though he did not understand those ideas himself. Others recognized that he was teaching a new religion. Because of these teachings coming from his mouth they took Paul to the Areopagus. There Paul was summoned to openly declare the new teaching that he was bringing to the city.
Paul’s Speech at the Areopagus. Vs 22-31
Paul stands in the midst of the Areopagus and proclaims message of Christ to his listening hearers. He begins his message by saying that he recognizes their religious pursuits. And because of these religious pursuits they had crafted an altar to an “unknown god” just in case they had missed one. This altar that stood as a witness to the polytheism in that city Paul uses as starting point in his declaration of the one true living God. What was unknown to the Athenians was going to be made known this day.
Paul proceeds to disclose “their place in the panorama of God’s global, history-spanning redemptive agenda.” Paul works Biblically and methodically against each of the present philosophical worldviews to present the glorious Christ that reigns supreme over the cosmos. Paul begins with a proper understanding of God’s place as creator and self-sufficient. Drawing from the revelation in the Old Testament Paul combats the ideas of the Epicureans with their distant, uninvolved gods and the Stoics with their pantheistic god. He did all this while under the main heading of decrying the worship of spiritually dead idols.
Paul next point starts by looking at the origin of mankind. He declares that from one man God has made every nation that existed. And his rights of creator extend to his sovereign governance of size and locations of these nations.  And God excises this sovereign right for a reason. So that people will, out of thankfulness and reverence for this creator God, search and find this God.
What we see next is Paul quoting some of the works written by these pagan philosophers. In both of these quotes the truth that God is not encapsulated in idols is shown to be believed by Greek philosophers. Because, if we are God’s offspring and are living then we should not think that God dwells in a lifeless object.
Paul then reaches the conclusion of his speech warning of the judgment that is to come. The Athenians had been living in ignorance to the actual reality of the person and works of God. But God has graciously overlooked that ignorance. Now, however, God holds men accountable and calls them to repent of their idolatry. For the fixed date of judgment is coming upon the world. And this judgment is going to be carried out none other than Jesus Christ. And all people have been assured of this by God’s action in raising Jesus Christ from the dead.
The Response to Paul’s Message. Vs 32-34.
Paul would tell the Corinthians that the aroma of Christ is life to some and death to others (2 Cor. 2:14-16). And that truth is shown by the response of the Athenians. At the first mention of resurrection some began mocking Paul’s ideas. Others responded by showing a further interest into what he was talking about and wanting him to speak about this matter again. But to those that had be appointed to eternal life (Act 13:48), they believed in the message and joined Paul after he had left the Areopagus.
With boldness and clarity Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and proclaimed the gospel. He did not, however, share some mechanical, prepackaged gospel presentation. Instead with what could be compared to a surgeon’s skill he presented gospel truths directly in philosophical and theological areas where those people lived in darkness. Because, as the Christ came amongst humanity and brought the gospel to our direct need. So too, Christ’s gospel still is designed to meet people where they are at and confront the idolatry they are serving. Once they are met and the Holy Spirit opens their darkened minds to behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:6) they then find their lives defined by the universal purposes of God. And part of God’s purposes is not just for the removal of evil but for the salvation of a bride that is part of the evil. This is His plan of redemption that is going to bring the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit glory for out eternity. It is our commission and honor to be a part of this plan.
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